Vegetarianism: The other 60's revolution
One of my favourite annual games is to try to predict what food trends will dominate the culinary landscape for the rest of the year. Sometimes they're insane – 2018 started with the fearful idea of a sushi-croissant hybrid – but many things that begin as trends turn into something more lasting. Think how much better life has been since salted caramel ice cream became a thing, or pho came along to cure hangovers and other woes. Often, these crazes first appear in London, and most die there too, but it's a city where new ideas are embraced, and where there's the greatest chance of those fads eventually becoming much-loved parts of our food culture.
Nowhere is this more true than in the world of vegetarianism. Once the preserve of a few cranks (more on them later), being a vegetarian is so mainstream that it's been surpassed by the even more uncompromising vegan lifestyle. Eschewing meat is seen as ethical, healthy and increasingly affordable, and is likely to become only more popular as food prices increase and we're faced with the possibility of growth hormone-riddled beef and chlorinated chicken finding their way onto our shelves from across the Pond. No wonder it's becoming such a common choice.
But this wasn't always the case. It was the 1960s that marked the start of the mainstream veggie movement, with a London venue pushing it from the fringes towards the centre ground. While vegetarian restaurants had been around since the late 1800s, there hadn't been somewhere that had the magic combination of right place, right time to make it a real hit. Enter David Canter. In 1961, he found a vacant bakery on Carnaby Street and opened Cranks, a vegetarian establishment with a mission to make wholesome meat-free food accessible to a wider audience. The timing was perfect. After the privations of war and rationing, people were ready to make decisions about what they ate, to think about the wider impact of their food choices on a personal, local and global level. Change was in the air.
If the timing was good, then the place was perfect. While Carnaby Street soon became one of the key locations for Swinging London, at this time it was still largely a row of small shops. But it was starting to develop into something else. The music venues in the area, from The Roaring Twenties to the Marquee Club, brought in some of the era's most exciting bands, including The Who and The Rolling Stones. Carnaby Street became the place to be seen, somewhere to buy the most up-to-date mod and hippie fashions, with Cranks catering to that same crowd. The Beatles and Linda McCartney could be found there, as could Cliff Richard and actresses Juliet and Hayley Mills. It grew so popular that it had to move to a bigger building. Cranks was part of the hippie revolution, embracing those same defining values and styles, a key part of the story of the Swinging '60s.
While Cranks is credited with helping bring vegetarianism to a larger audience, it was a victim of its own success. As is so often the case with something original and exciting, copycats soon appeared. Veggie eateries appeared around London and beyond, creating stiff competition for the original business. Cranks started to be seen as old-fashioned, a bit socks-and-sandals compared with the sleeker new places on the block. Even so, it is still a respected name in the industry, creating wholesome recipes and products that stick to their original mission, and their Carnaby Street restaurant was as much a fixture of Swinging London as the miniskirt.
The original Cranks may be long gone, but vegetarian and vegan food remains a key fixture on London's food map, although it's as likely to be a high-end affair as it is a cheap and cheerful bowl of daal. Whether you fancy joining the raw revolution at the Wild Food Cafe or enjoying an Instragrammable feast at Vanilla Black, London's veggie scene is still as exciting and forward-thinking as it was in the '60s.
And even if you're a committed carnivore, it's got to be better than crossushi, right?